The Scott Sisters of Mississippi: Social Justice Meets Social Media
If you should find yourself falsely accused and facing prison time or worse -- in prison serving time for a crime you did not commit or for a crime you committed but received an excessively harsh sentence -- you'll need a good attorney. Almost as much as an attorney, however, you may need social activists who understand social media to take up your cause. That's what the Gray-Haired Witnesses and other activist groups have done for two sisters, Gladys and Jamie Scott. They've taken up the cause of seeing the women freed from prison.
They will fast, and according to their press release, they will also:
... appear at the Department of Justice and the White House in Washington, DC on June 21, 2010, calling upon the nation to exercise an authentic system of justice in the case of Gladys and Jamie Scott and all other women who have been incarcerated wrongly and egregiously over-sentenced, punishing and destroying our families and children. Among their demands is freedom for the Scott Sisters and that an Inspection and Observation Team enter the Pearl, MS prison where Jamie Scott is being held.
Based on a list posted at Scribd, more than 50 groups and individuals stand with them to champion the Scott sisters. What happened to these sisters that would motivate this kind of action?
Writing at The Black Commentator in 2008 about the first time she heard of the sisters, legal analyst Nancy R. Lockhart says she was working for Jesse Jackson's organization in Chicago in 2005 while earning a Masters in Jurisprudence. That is where she received a letter intended for Jackson that changed her life:
I will never forget the frigid, Chicago morning when I opened a letter from Mrs. Evelyn Rasco, a mother and widow. ... she had written Rainbow/PUSH for 11 years, without a response. ... this time (she) wrote Congressman Jackson in a plea to get the letter to his father’s (Rev. Jackson) office. The letter was hand delivered (and about) ... her two daughters ... serving double life terms each, in ... Mississippi, for armed robbery.
Now Lockhart strives to free Rasco's daughters, the Scott sisters.
Author of the book Inheriting the Trade, Thomas Norman DeWolf, posted information about the case at his website, opening with this narrative of the day's events leading up to the sisters' arrest:
On Christmas Eve in 1993 Jamie and Gladys Scott left a mini-mart near their home in Scott County, Mississippi. Their car broke down. They hitched a ride from two young men, one of whom they knew. Later that evening the two men were robbed at gunpoint by three teenagers in another car. The robbers took an estimated $11 from the two young men. No one was hurt. Police accused the Scott sisters of setting the victims up.
Norman writes, as have many others, that the Scott sisters had "no criminal record."
After similar introductions to their story around the Net, the saga of Gladys and Jamie Scott becomes more complicated with plot twists to rival a Dickens novel. Everywhere, activists websites and bloggers tell of the Scott sisters' plight. The crux of disbelief is that these women are serving double life terms for a crime of which not only do they continue to maintain their innocence, and for which -- even if they had committed the robbery -- the sentence seems excessively cruel, compared to sentences for worse crimes we hear of daily.
At Mother Jones, blogger James Ridgeway repeats, "no one was hurt and the take was $11."
As I wrote back in March, this unwarranted life sentence is at risk of becoming a death sentence for Jamie Scott, who is gravely ill, due to the care she is receiving at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) in Pearl. Since we first covered the story, Jamie’s condition has, if anything, grown still more critical.
Jamie Scott's kidney failure appears to have been the catalyst for the recent surge in attention to the case, and Ridgeway's post provides an excerpt from one of Jamie Scott's letters about conditions at the prison where she receives dialysis.
They use unlawful punishments to try to shut us up. I need help. I need a inmate to help me, but for some reason they will not allow me to move with my sister, so she can help me... My sister [Gladys Scott] and I were housed together for over ten years and not once have we ever caused any problem. We were split up because in 2003 the Commissioner came with the order to separate all family members...
Lockhart has posted the story of the sisters' arrest and conviction as told by Jamie Scott at the website America's Wrongfully Convicted:
This was the beginning of a real life nightmare for everyone in our family: our parents, our children, and especially us. ... Our trial began on October 4, 1994. Gladys, nineteen, and I, Jamie, were twenty-two years old.
She says the men who implicated them received lenient sentences in exchange for pointing the finger, and at Philly Independent Media Center, publisher of The Black Commentator, Lenore Jean Daniels tells why a Mississippi sheriff's department allegedly wanted the Scott sisters so badly.
The Plot Thickens
According to Daniels and others, the case against the sisters is really about local law enforcement's revenge on their father, James “Hawk” Rasco. After he moved his family from Chicago back to Scott County, Miss., which is dry, Rasco took over a nightclub previously owned by a nephew who had turned state's evidence in a case against the "High White Sheriff" of Scott County, Glenn Warren.
Per LexisNexis, "In 1989, Sheriff Warren was convicted of extortion in violation of the federal Hobbs Act." His conviction is confirmed online via case information for Bobby Wilcher, who received the death penalty after Warren testified against him in the court of Judge Marcus D. Gordon.
Warren's conviction on extortion is relevant because it supports Scott advocates' claim that the sheriff's department in Scott County had a history of extorting money from nightclub owners with the promise to let them serve liquor illegally. With Warren behind bars, according to Rasco's story and bloggers relaying the information, Deputy Sheriff Marvin Williams, who is African-American, picked up where Warren left off. Williams allegedly demanded money to steer clear of nightclubs serving alcohol, Rasco refused to pay, and Williams threatened*, "I will get you one way or the other, even through your daughters!"
At Victims of the State, a website that provides summaries of cases that appear to have been mishandled in favor of state law enforcement and prosecutors, the Scott case is presented as rife with questionable witnesses with criminal backgrounds who testified against the sisters as part of plea deals. The site also provides a PDF transcript of the case.
Another piece of the puzzle comes through the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in a statement about the Wilcher case. The organization alleges that Judge Gordon, during a period when he did not serve on the bench, represented Warren, the former sheriff, in his extortion case. Gordon is also the judge who presided over the Scott case years later. These kinds of overlaps seem suspicious to Scott advocates.
Justice and politics in Mississippi are tainted with cronyism, say critics. The Daily Beast reported last month that Mississippi is number three on a list of most corrupt states. In the Wilcher case, the NCADP asserts that Judge Gordon should have recused himself.
According to Anthony Papa, writing in blogs at the Huffington Post, the Scott sisters have appealed their convictions. Those efforts failed, but their attorney Chokwe Lumumba, who has a hostile past with Judge Gordon, obtained affidavits from one of the sentenced men recanting his testimony against the sisters and from other witnesses who say the sisters are innocent. With the statements, Lumumba sought a pardon from the governor of Mississippi. It was denied, says Papa.
While denied freedom by the courts and governor, the sisters steadily gather support online, and their story may be gaining traction with mainstream media. The following YouTube video shows Jane Velez Mitchell of CNN's Headline News mentioning the case on her show.
As Velez Mitchell rants that the sisters received life terms while the men who plea bargained received 10-month sentences, her gallery of analysts nod their heads. They lament that like-crimes do not receive like-sentences under our justice system. Mitchell compares the treatment of the Scott Sisters to that of John Gardner. While Gardner recently received life for the murders of Amber Dubois, 14, and Chelsea King, 17, he previously had served five years of a mere six-year sentence "for beating and molesting a 13-year-old girl in San Diego in 2000." That's was a light sentence, says CBS News.
The sisters' case has not drawn support from the NAACP as did another prominent case, nor is it being addressed by the famous Innocence Project, which focuses on freedom by DNA testing; however, Workers' World reports that comedian and Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory, who gained prominence in the 1960s, endorses action for the sisters.
In a June 3 press release, Gregory stated, "This is one of the worst cases I have ever heard of in my life. My jaw dropped when I read that these women have been in prison for almost 16 years and aren’t even charged with laying a hand on anyone! This country should be embarrassed to have such a blatant travesty of justice exist while wagging our finger at people abroad for human rights abuses. What we have going on here is the epitome of cruel and unusual punishment and is outrageous, even for Mississippi!"
Women and Sentencing
The Gray-Haired Witnesses say at their blog the Scott sisters' case represents for them the rise in women being incarcerated and sentenced harshly.
Over the last 20 years, the women’s population in US prisons has more than tripled. Most women are in prison as a result of drug selling, addiction, domestic violence and criminal acts mostly related to men.
They believe judgments leading to the unfair sentencing of black women in particular is directly influenced by racism. Others have made emotional pleas for support for the Scott Sisters because they are mothers who have become grandmothers while locked away "unjustly." Another post from Lenore Daniels shows a photo captioned "Jamie and Gladys Scott's children and grandchildren have been in the care of their mother, Evelyn Rasco, all these years. It is way past time to reunite these mothers with their children."
In 2008, BlogHer.com published "Baby and Me Behind Bars." That post quoted a 1991 New York Times article in which it's asserted that the changing attitude of society toward women with the rise of feminism plays a role in harsher sentences for women. But as illustrated by the Scott sisters case and also the case of Shaquanda Cotton, the teen in Texas who was sentenced to seven years for pushing a hall monitor, some sentences are so unconscionably punitive that they indicate influences beyond backlash against feminists.
In addition, the high numbers of African-Americans being sent to prison for longer terms than whites committing a similar crime, as was seen in the case of the Jena 6, has prompted research that leads some people to conclude the prison system, with its work programs, has become the agent of "neoslavery." As wild as that sounds, author Douglas A. Blackmon won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for his book Slavery By Any Other Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II.
Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations.
The Scott Sisters have not been sold, and yet one could argue the sentencing smacks of intimidation tactics.
Social Justice Meets Social Media
The blogger at From My Brown Eye View, MsLadyDeborah, entitles her post about the Monday, June 21, day of action, Am I Not Human? and she tells her readers that the Gray Haired Witnesses also have a Facebook page. In addition, she relays the June 21st action schedule:
The day-long event commences at the Department of Justice in a 10:00 a.m formal appeal to Eric Holder, rejoins at the White House at Noon for a press conference and formal appeal to President Obama, and then continues at Lafayette Square Park from 1PM until 9PM for the duration of the fast with speakers, live performances and artists. ...
She participates in the Roots of Humanity meme through which bloggers publish on the 27th of each month posts about oppression and the human condition. On March 27th, The Roots of Humanity blog also shared the Scott sisters' story. That's one of hundreds of blogs and activist websites discussing what went wrong in the case of these sisters in Mississippi, including posts from AfroSpear members, some of whom were mentioned in Kim Pearson's post about net activism and this case last year. Her post includes audio interviews with Lockart and Jamie Scott.
You may contact the Gray Haired Witnesses here, email@example.com or by telephone, 1- 866-968-1188, Ext. 2.
The Free the Scott Sisters blog provides contact information for their mother, Mrs. Evelyn Rasco: P.O. Box 7100/Pensacola, Florida 32534/Email Mrs. Rasco. Its post on Monday's action provides details about parking, directions to the Justice Department from The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, etc., for those who can be physically present.
The family and organizers hope to draw more attention from the national media. The build on the Net to create awareness of the Scott sisters' case is another example of how social media has changed social activists' methodology for motivating citizens to take action for political change and justice. Since the advent of email, blogs, and social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, we have seen outrage at impeachment proceedings against former President Bill Clinton give us MoveOn.org and soul-splitting sorrow with righteous indignation over Hurricane Katrina birth Color of Change. The conservative Tea Party movement also began through social media.
After observing how a Net campaign moved people to stand for the Jena 6, and how tapping the right cyber hearts captured national attention through the I Am Troy campaign, perhaps influencing higher courts to hear Troy Davis's case, the cry "power to the people" has new teeth. Through social media, perseverance, which for the last 16 years has leaned on a hope and a prayer for the Scott sisters, could become salvation.
*Added Writer Note: This writer has not seen documentation that indicates Deputy Sheriff Marvin Williams has been charged with extortion or any other crime. That allegation by the family and advocates does not appear in the official transcripts of the first trial and would be considered hearsay without the testimony of "Hawk" Rasco, who is deceased. However, one of the young robbers, who was 14 at the time of the trial and received a plea deal, said under cross examination by the sisters' first attorney, Firnist J. Alexander, Jr., that Williams and another officer threatened to send him to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman if he did not testify against the Scott sisters. He said they told him inmates there would "make me out a female," meaning he would be raped. (This testimony appears around page 93 of the PDF transcript.) If the teen testified as they asked, however, he could go home. As a result, he signed a statement, which he said under oath he neither wrote nor read. He said that Williams brought it to him already typed. He simply had to sign it to go free and testify at trial to get his plea deal.